EQUAL AND OPPOSITE REACTIONS - PATTI LISZKAY
Set in working-class Northeast Philadelphia and told in urban voices, Equal and Opposite Reactionsisa romantic comedy about the chain of event that follows when Sally Miller, a newly divorced, financially struggling young mother and Silvio Jablonski, a broken-hearted plumber who shows up to fix Sally's toilet, learn to their shock that they have something strangely in common.
Their discovery both pulls them into a relationship and leads them down a rabbit hole that causes their lives to become entwined with a constellation of characters including Sally's over-extended, real-estate-managing ex-husband, Silvio's seductive, sexually manipulative ex-wife, a desperate young family of illegal immigrants and a socially-conscious African-American lawyer who becomes their advocate.
MM: Hi folks!
Another week. Another Book. This time I'm sitting down to chat with author Patti Liszkay to talk about her book Equal And Opposite Reactions.
Patti, welcome to Martin Matthews Writes!
PL: Thank you, Martin, it’s an honor to be here.
MM: Well, I wasn't that great at physics in school. Equal And Opposite Reactionsisn't a physics text book, is it? <PHEW!> Okay, so what exactly isyour book about, Patti?
PL: Ha, ha! No worries, Martin, it’s not a physics textbook; nor, in truth, was I any good at physics, either. But, like you, I did remember at least one thing from that class, and extra credit to you, Sir, for catching that the title refers to the physics theorem, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In fact so few have caught the reference in the title that I believe there must be millions out there who learned even less in physics class than I did.
Anyway, being a manifestation of the workings of that law of physics in the petri dish of human relationships (yeah, I know, I know. The only thing I’m worse at than science is mixing science metaphors), “Equal and Opposite Reactions” is a romantic comedy of errors ― lots and lots of errors. I set the book in working-class Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, filled it with the sort of characters I knew back then and told it in the urban voices I heard growing up.
The story tells of the chain of events that unwinds when Sally Miller, a newly-divorced, financially and emotionally struggling young mother living in a condo on the Roosevelt Boulevard and Silvio Jablonski, a broken-hearted plumber from Cornwells Heights who shows up to fix Sally’s toilet, learn to their shock that they have something strangely in common. This discovery both pulls them into a relationship and leads them down a rabbit hole that causes their lives to become entwined with a constellation of characters from around the Philadelphia area including Sally’s over-extended, real-estate-managing ex-husband, Silvio’s seductive, sexually manipulative ex-wife, a shady South Philadelphia salvage yard operator, a desperate young family of undocumented Nicaraguan immigrants and the African American lawyer who becomes their advocate.
The story covers issues of divorce, including the financial and child custody struggles, the challenges of blended families, the legal system, the anger, and the healing. It also covers timely immigration issues as Sally and Silvio struggle over how to follow their consciences and their hearts when faced with the ethical and personal dilemmas that swirl around their befriending of the young undocumented couple who are also struggling to make a better life for their American-born child.
MM: The book sounds very multi-layered. You have these two characters, Sally and Silvio, who end up meeting, but they have some major baggage with them, right?
PL: Oh, yes indeed to both your observations, Martin. There are several convergent story lines playing out which is, I guess, why it’s such a big, long book. Still, in spite of its length most readers seem to find the book a fast read. One reader told me he read it in two sittings, another said she stayed up all night just to finish it.
As for Sally and Silvio, yes, they do enter the story carrying some major baggage. Both characters are still consumed by grief, anger, and life disorientation, the fallout from their recent divorces. At the beginning of the novel neither can focus very well on anything except their own unhappiness and their own problems, emotional and logistical. It took several seismic events which I won’t reveal here to shake them loose from their preoccupation with their own troubles.
MM:Well, where does the undocumented immigrant family come into the story? How do they, along with the lawyer, play a role in Sally and Silvio's lives?
PL: Lupe and Ascención Guzman are an undocumented couple from Nicaragua who unwittingly usher in at least one of the seismic events that rock Sally and Silvio’s world. The Guzmans are Sally’s next-door neighbors in the shoddy Northeast Philadelphia condo/apartment building that Sally and her young son have moved into after Sally’s divorce. Sally meets Lupe when she knocks on Lupe’s door in search of a neighbor whose bathroom she can use after her toilet breaks and while she waits for the plumber to arrive. Lupe, who speaks only a few words of English, finally understands what Sally wants and lets Sally use her bathroom, but then soon afterwards Lupe and Ascención show up at Sally’s door to collect on that neighborly favor in a big way. From there begins a give-and-take of one favor begetting another until Sally, Silvio, and the Guzmans are wrapped up in each other’s lives and eventually land in the office of Charleston Tilley, an immigration lawyer with a social conscience who nonetheless finds himself pulled into a more convoluted situation than he’d bargained for when agreed take on the case of the plumber, his girlfriend, and the Nicaraguan immigrants.
MM:I've got to say, Patti, that sounds like quite the tapestry you're weaving! Where did this story come from? What made you want to tell these characters stories and share their voices?
PL: Well, this story started out as an idea, a flight of imagination, I guess, as all stories do. I wrote this particular idea into a short story called “He Looked Nothing Like Prince Charming” that was published by First for Women back when First for Women used to publish short stories. I got pretty good feedback from the people who read the story. They’d say, “Oh, it made me laugh, it made me cry,” but they’d invariably add, “But what happens next?” To which I always wanted to respond, “Hey, it was just a short story, how do I know what happens next?”
But then I did eventually get to thinking about what would happen next, as well as what would have happened before, so I figured it all out and I expanded the story of “He Looked Nothing Like Prince Charming” in both directions, what happened before and what happened after, and I wrote it into a play – I was in my playwriting phase back then – that I called “Equal and Opposite Reactions.” I subsequently submitted this play to many producers, all of whom rejected it, often with a remark along the lines of, “Really good story, enjoyed reading it, good luck getting it produced.” But then there was one producer who wrote back, “This is a good story but there are too many children, too many scene changes, the staging would be too difficult.” And, you know, that was like a “Bingo!” moment for me, that this story was meant to be a novel. So anyway, it’s been a long Ulyssian odyssey of many years and many stops along the way from the idea to the novel.
MM: A labor of love, to be sure. I can totally relate, considering the amount of work I've put into my own stories. The characters tend to take on their own lives, don't they? You mentioned your characters are some of the people you observed growing up...were you trying to recreate those people here?
PL: As far as the characters go, well, I first thought up the story ― which probably could have been set in Anywhere, U.S.A. ― and then decided to set it in a place I knew and populate it with people that I knew. In fact I knew a number of my characters including Silvio the plumber, who I dated for a while; well, of course he wasn’t a plumber back then, we were both kids, nor is he one now, as far as I know. I just made him into a plumber in my story.
As for the undocumented immigrants, I made them Nicaraguan as opposed to some other nationality because again, it was a matter of writing what I knew. Years ago a relative of mine was an aid worker stationed in a jungle village in Nicaragua. During a visit to my relative, I spent some time in the city of León where I took Spanish classes, made some Nicaraguan friends, and learned a bit about the culture and the city. So, again, in the characters of Lupe and Ascención, I was writing about people that I felt I knew from a place I was familiar with.
MM: Can you tell us a little about your writing influences?
PL: Well, I love Phillip Roth and William Styron and Tom Wolf – one reader told me that my writing style in Equal and Opposite Reactionsreminds them of Tom Wolf’s style. (I’m sure they meant Tom Wolf in kindergarten). And nobody can create a character that tugs at your heart like Anne Tyler. And you know whose work is great and has always really inspired me in the craft of writing? W.S. Gilbert, who wrote the words to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. His use of the English language is so witty and ingenious that one could get a great education on the clever use of words just by listening to Gilbert and Sullivan. (Which I do. A lot).
MM: What are you reading right now?
PL: “David Copperfield.” I love Charles Dickens, too.
MM:Do you have any more books in the works?
PL: Believe or not, a sequel to “Equal and Opposite Reactions,” and not because I was intending to write a sequel but because people who’ve read the book are always asking me, “What happens next?” “Loved the book,” they say, “loved the characters, but what happens next?” Which really surprises me because, I mean, this is a big, long, book with 113, 256 words ― I certainly don’t think I could have gotten away with making it any longer. In truth, I thought that by the end of the book all the many problems I’d thrown at all the main characters had been solved, the issues resolved, all the story lines tied off according to the rules: you know, each character starts herethen ends up there. I thought the story was over, but apparently it’s not. I think the readers just got really invested in the characters, some they loved, some they loved to hate, and so they want to know what happens next. So I’ve been thinking about what happens next and I’ve got it roughly figured out, so everybody, hang on, a sequel is on the way. But, of course, there’s still plenty of time to read “Equal And Opposite Reactions” first.
MM :That's pretty funny -- when it was a short story everyone asked "What happens next?" And now that it's a novel...they're stillasking! Sounds like you've done a fantastic job creating lively and engaging characters that people want more of. We'll have to have you back when the sequel drops! Well, thanks for visiting with me. Be sure to come back again soon.
PL: Oh, thank you for having me, Martin, the pleasure’s been mine, and I sure will!
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